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Could pond life save the world?

Mitsuru Izumo kept trying to find a way to produce Euglena on a large scale. Now it’s being used for everything from food to biofuel

By Kathy Brewis . 09 March 2018

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Mitsuru Izumo thought he was going to work in international development. In 1988, as an 18-year-old student at Tokyo University, he visited Bangladesh to see for himself what poverty looked like in one of Asia’s poorest countries. What he found there would change the course of his career.

The people he saw weren’t starving – they had plenty of rice. But they were suffering terribly from malnutrition: rice alone wasn’t enough. “I promised myself that I would do something to help,” Izumo says.

Back in Tokyo he found out about a nutrient-rich microorganism called Euglena that could potentially solve the problem. Euglena contains essential vitamins, minerals such as calcium and iron and amino acids. There are 100 types of euglena but the one we’re interested in is Euglena gracilis.

A long-term research project was already underway but, after 20 years of trying, they hadn’t had a breakthrough on how to produce it on a commercial scale. Izumo changed majors from literature to agriculture and joined the team.

More about Euglena: it’s a pond-dwelling protist – thinner than a strand of hair; single-celled, like an amoeba; able to consume food like an animal and able to photosynthesise like a plant. Basically a green goo with superpowers. Potentially a game-changer. Could it be grown on a large scale? Izumo began to experiment.

After a thousand or so failed experiments, however, things weren’t looking good and he couldn’t get any funding to continue. So he graduated and became a banker, joining the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi. The Euglena idea had taken hold, however – he carried on with the research at nights and at weekends and, a year later, quit his job so he could dedicate himself to it full-time, living off his savings.

In 2005, he co-founded euglena Co, named after the algae, together with Kengo Suzuki, a postgraduate student working on mass cultivation methods and Takuyuki Fukumoto, a director of a food sales company. Its stated mission: “Saving the world with Euglena.” And they finally found a way to cultivate euglena on a large scale.

By the start of 2006 Izumo had developed a powder form of euglena that could be used in health supplements. He knocked on the doors of 500 companies but nobody would distribute it. Finally, in 2008, one of Japan’s biggest conglomerates, Itochu, came on board (501st time lucky!) and sales started surging. Izumo partnered with companies such as Hitachi, Isuzu and All Nippon Airways for investment and research support.

In 2012 the company went public in a 10 billion yen (£530,000) IPO. In 2015 Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognised euglena Co. with an outstanding start-up business award. Izumo has spoken out about the need for Japanese banks and investors to be less conservative. “Many ventures are struggling to make it and it’s because their ideas are too innovative,” he said.

“Never give up,” he says. In recognition of his ridiculous level of persistence, he was joint winner (with Fablittlebag’s Martha Silcott) of the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award at the 2017 Real Innovation Awards.

It’s nearly 20 years since he visited Bangladesh and started building his company on passion and stubbornness. In partnership with the Grameen Krishi Foundation, he now provides Euglena cookies for schoolchildren and produces mung beans in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Japanese consumers can now buy Euglena in the form of green juices and dietary supplements. There’s even a skincare range featuring this super-special substance.

His company now has a growth rate of over 40% and is valued at around US$930 million (£710 million) on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. He is exploring ever-more inventive uses for the algae – including as a biofuel for aircraft. On 2015, the company partnered with the Japanese airline ANA, Isuzu, Chiyoda, Itochu Enex and City of Yokohama to build a test facility in Yokohama, near one of Tokyo’s two main airports, aiming to produce 33,000 gallons of jet fuel a year – ideally in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.

Aircraft fuel from green goo? “Everyone says it’s crazy the first time they hear the idea,” Izumo admits. An oil that’s chemically similar to kerosene can be extracted from Euglena, it turns out. This can be blended with traditional fuel, eking it out and reducing carbon emissions.

“Entrepreneurship is about contributing to society – and challenging yourself to reach your goals,” Izumo says. He’s even dreaming of sending people to Mars using Euglena as both rocket fuel and food for astronauts. Maybe he’ll even grow it there. As his research director told CNN recently, “If we can cultivate it in space, it could be used to support human lives.”

Izumo’s combination of idealism and pragmatism knows no bounds. “I am lucky to have competent and skilled people help me and others who want to work with us,” he says. “I am confident my dream of saving the world with Euglena will come true.”

For more on Mitsuru Izumo and Real Innovation Awards' winners, watch this film:

The Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship equips and inspires entrepreneurs, innovators and the leaders who design the ecosystems in which they thrive.

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The Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship equips and inspires entrepreneurs, innovators and the leaders who design the ecosystems in which they thrive.

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